Sunday, August 06, 2006

TODAYonline: Early Curtains for Provocative Play

I figure that since I'm currently on a roll with regards to freedom of expression and speech on a local context, it couldn't hurt to comment on this issue particularly because of the playwrite's earlier brush with the authorities i.e. Talaq and the implications it has with regards to the balancing of rights (or lack thereof) that we see.

Early curtains for provocative play
A day before its opening, MDA says it portrayed Muslims negatively

Loh Chee Kong AND Ashraf Safdar

LESS than 30 hours before it was to open on Saturday evening, the Media Development Authority (MDA) pulled the plug on controversial playwright P Elangovan's latest work.

The MDA announced that it was withdrawing the arts entertainment licence for Mr Elangovan's provocative offering which, it said, portrayed Muslims negatively.

Two things here.
1. Why was refusal granted so late? And here we see echos of what happened for example with Snowball 2005. I think while there may ostensibly be good reason for refusing the staging of the play, the manner in which it was done would simply fuel conspiracy theories.

Not to mention, leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

2. Just because it portrays a particular racial group negatively, is that sufficient reason to simply disallow a play or a piece or a speech or any form of expression? Especially where there might be competing and compelling reasons to allow them e.g. truth or more fundamentally, the right to express oneself? Keep that in mind as a short history of Talaq will be given further in this piece.
It is the first time the MDA has disallowed the staging of a play since it was formed in 2003 and took over the licensing of arts entertainment from the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (Pelu). The agency issued some 1,200 arts entertainment licenses last year with about a fifth of those requiring a rating.

Useful to know that this was pretty particular then.
Mr Elangovan, too, was initially granted a licence on Aug 1 to stage his full-length play over two nights during the weekend at The Substation.

But in its press statement on Friday, the MDA said that it was banning the production Smegma, which was scheduled to be performed by theatre group Agni Kootthu, as it was "insensitive and inappropriate for staging".

The MDA added that it had consulted the Arts Consultative Panel — a committee formed in 2004 and made up of 35 members including arts and media professionals, educators and grassroots representatives — and its members were "concerned that the play could create unhappiness and disaffection amongst Muslims".

Here, it's a mark of how socialised we are with regards to "sensitivity" of our "multi-racial and religious society" that if I were to ask the question, "so what?" I would either get blank stares or accusing glares.

But I think the implication can be fairly disturbing, especially coming on the heels of Talaq, in that race becomes a shield against commentary, because even if something needs to be said, but as long as it causes "unhappiness and disaffection" amongst protected communities (by which I mean "religion, race, descent or place of birth", as reflected in the constitution. And no, gender and sexual identity are not under this list, which makes it perfectly legitimate to discrimate against them) then no speech can be had, arguably without governmental approval.
The synopsis for the play, which was to be staged at The Substation's 100-seater Guinness Theatre, read: "The bizarre experiences and incidents in the play interrogate the moral, cultural, religious, political, economical legitimacy world from many perspectives of the underdogs and their masters. When the comfort zone is shattered, ugliness rears its head like smelly smegma."

With its script filled with Hokkien and English expletives, the play consists of 10 vignettes. These included one which depicted Singaporeans' sexual escapades with underaged girls overseas and a class of kindergarten children calling their Member of Parliament a "pig".

Another scene scripted also has three men in a prison cell making fun of the Singapore flag.

Ehhhhh...poisoning the well? Hard to say honestly, but if I were to deconstruct this piece, I would probably say so.
Mr Elangovan, 48, told Today that he had submitted the script last month and was granted a licence for it under an RA (18) rating for "strong language and adult themes" on Tuesday.

That very same day, however, he was also informed of the National Arts Council's decision to cut its funding for the play due to "sensitive content".

Beneath the coarse language and disturbing scenes, Mr Elangovan said that Smegma "analyses the five stars on the Singapore flag".

After hearing of MDA's decision through a phone call on Friday afternoon — he was informed in writing about three hours later — he told Today that he was "unsurprised".

"This is always happening to me," said the playwright, who, in his 33-year career, has been labelled a maverick by his milder critics and a "rabble-rouser" by his harsher ones.

So was the license given on a probational basis pending review by the committee? Surely, as journalist, this constitutes a news-worthy event to investigate and dig up more facts right?!
In 2000, another of his plays, Talaq — about an Indian-Muslim woman's brush with marital violence — was banned by Pelu in the face of protests from Muslim and Indian authorities.

Here's the rather fascinating history behind the entire "event". Talaq, which refers to the word "dismiss" and when spoken trice is effective divorce in certain Muslim (and non Muslim) nations. This play, based upon the experiences of 13 Indian Muslim women, was about marital violence and the dimished role that women had in certain societies because of apparent religiousity. It was IN FACT performed and had an initial run (three in fact) without much (if any) controversy.

It was only when they tried for a theatre run in English and Malay that the Tamil Muslim Jama’ath and MUIS "protest(ed)".

So here we have a classical clash, on the one hand, the propagation of social commentary on the plight of women in certain societies. And on the other, concerns about offending the sensitivities of certain racial and religious groups.

The problem as I mentioned before is this. Offending people is part and parcel of free speech and when I mean offending, I don't mean the squirrelous definition that tries to distinguish between speech/expression that offend different groups and by which offence means only protected groups get offended and no one else. For example, I find speech that try to justify fundamentalism or the support of dictatorial regimes on the grounds of "Asian Values" odious and offensive, but we don't clamp down on those speech. So why is race and religion automatically protected in this regard.

The justification comes by way of pointing to the destabilising effect of such speech etc. But it doesn't answer the original argument. Worst still, given that we have laws against riots and disturbances of public peace and order, it would appear that we are pandering to the views of a violent minority and not using the law against them as we should.

The key to free speech is that if you are offended by speech, you counter that speech by making your own speech and not by clamping down on the "offending speech". And in this particular instance, there was good reason to allow that speech. Here's an unpublished press release by AWARE in the aftermath:
On this day we remember the millions of women who suffer in silence - the pain, of physical abuse and mental anguish - that's inflicted on them because they are women. They suffer in silence because they have been disempowered; because they have no where to go and because men hold the reins of power over them, their right to speak and to be heard.

It has taken many years of struggle and awareness-raising programmes in Singapore to break that silence, to offer safe spaces for the victims and to get laws enacted to provide for greater protection to victims of violence. For instance, because of these laws, an increasing number of complaints are filed in the Family Court. In 1996, 1,306 cases were reported; in 1997 the reported cases grew to 2,019 and in 1999 to 2,280.

Statistics also show that spousal violence cuts across all ages, races, religions, occupational and educational background. But there are many that go unreported. Many families suffer in silence. We, therefore, have to continue raising awareness and empowering the victims to break away from the cycle of violence and break the silence. Drama provides one of those means of breaking the silence.

It is therefore, disturbing, that "Talaq", a social commentary on the evils of domestic violence, has been silenced and thus silencing the right of the victims to speak and to be heard.

We thought we had moved away from those dark days of silence. This episode serves to remind us that the struggle against violence is an on-going one and that men in power can silence women's right to speak against oppression by any means within their power. IN this case men have used race and religion to silence; the licensing and funding authorities have succumbed to their arguments and banned the play "Talaq".

Domestic violence is not acceptable in any religion. Using religion to silence a social issue, such as domestic violence, makes a farce of our education, and our progress and our claim as a first class home for all.

Nov. 25th 2000

But here's the final bit of the article...
In 1975, he was investigated by the Internal Security Department because of his reinterpretation of a classical Indian story where a Muslim and Hindu King have a conversation.

When Today spoke to the playwright-cum-director about Smegma earlier, Mr Elangovan said that he doesn't intentionally write incendiary material.

But in this case, the MDA indicated that he had crossed the line.

It said: "Smegma undermines the values underpinning Singapore's multi-racial, multi-religious society. The play portrays Muslims in a negative light."

I think everything I said above applies here. But the last statement is a disturbing non-sequitor. Taken on its plain reading, one cannot portray any religion or race in a negative light and effectively makes them immune from criticism no matter how fair or justified.

As I have said previously, Singaporeans are not stupid and 4 plus decades of NE and Racial Harmony Day have socialised us against racism (a very good thing I might add) and we have spoken out against racism many a times. If so, such statements are also a terribly slight on us citizens for being incapable of evaluating and distinguishing between criticism and rabble rousing demagogue.

And more so I think, when it comes to religion because it is a choice and because unlike a biological fact like "race" (I prefer ancestry), it is a point of view that should be no more immune from critique, especially when considering its rather abysmmal history.


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